I drift in & out of rock mags. I go through phases of subscribing to Spin & AP only to one month decided not to renew. I skim reviews & then just as restlessly stop. But in my careless reading, I notice a few consistent trends, one of them being opinions on Tom Petty. Most reviews I read of his CDs go something like this: It’s ok, the music is solid, but it’s not anything you haven’t heard before. It won’t change the world.
There is one album of Petty’s that didn’t change my world, but definitely colored it. At the end of 1994, his album Wildflowers came out & quickly became a soundtrack to the events in my life. I was 13. My Mormon parents, who had been sealed in the temple, had separated with the intent to divorce. What had once been an impossible occurrence in my small world was happening.
My sister was the one who had originally gotten the CD as a gift but I borrowed it or asked her to play it constantly. What was it about this record that got under my skin? I listen to it now & try to puzzle it out. The sound is simple, elemental. Lots of acoustic guitar but not afraid to rock out on an electric or bring in a piano or saxophones to bend the mood of a song one way or the other. Petty delivers the lyrics casually, plainly despite the hope, lust, disillusionment or dreaminess built into the words.
I think what appeals to me is that Wildflowers has a solitary sound. Often times Petty comes off like an observer to the images in his songs; he just happens to be sharing them with us. The opening eponymous song sets the tone, where “I have seen no other/Who compares with you” before Petty grants the person of his interest an entire fantasy world of joy. Continuing with “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Time To Move On,” & “Don’t Fade On Me” the stories in each song seem like something that’s been reflected upon. The phrase “I remember” pops up a lot.
Maybe this is the allure, the feeling of being alone without admitting loneliness. I did relate to the track “To Find a Friend” for the most obvious reasons: “In the middle of his life/He left his wife/And ran off to be bad.” The lyrics fit the facts of my parents’ stricken marriage, but it made the pain of my absent father less complicated. He was gone. My sisters & I carried on. “And the days went by like paper in the wind.” That casual remove, that chiming piano break that sounds like rain rushing leaves into a gutter. I think this is why I was so obsessed with the CD. Distractions, dreams, anything to put between myself & what I couldn’t control.
There is one song, though, that I come back to even now: “It’s Good to Be King.” It’s not some smart-ass, cocky anthem of entitlement. Instead, the lyrics are full of longing, the words “I wish” implicit in each line. It’s a song that realizes the only kingdoms we can really control are the ones in our own heads. The video actually amplifies the weird & self-conscious tone of the song. As if to punctuate the statement, the instrumental at the end of the song extends, calm, blue & undisturbed, allowing listeners to get lost in a world of their own making.